Yakini, Malik

  • EDUCATION
  • LAND

Date: April 6, 2019; July 12, 2019

“Transforming society is both a protracted and intergenerational process.” True wisdom from a man who holds decades of experience in the struggle. Malik Yakini has made Black Liberation the cause of his life’s work through African centered education and self-determination through community-based agriculture. As one of the earliest advocates for African centered education in Detroit, Yakini helped to realize a reimagining of education for Black children in the city. As the executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN), Malik has been at the forefront of the struggle for food sovereignty and land justice in the Black community.  

Malik has seen many eras come and go in Detroit. Growing up on the west side he witnessed the transition from a white to a majority Black city. He remembers the prosperity of an emerging Black middle class as well as economic decline that eroded it. Malik came of age during the height of the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Vietnam anti-war movements. The intersection of these movements shaped his life for years to come. The influence of two radical grade school teachers in particular, ignited the fire of Black consciousness within Yakini by teaching him about the world beyond white-westernized curriculum. Hearing things like Malcom X’s “Message to the Grass Roots” gave him an understanding of how racism functioned in the United States. As Malik grew into activism one of his most important mentors was Mama Aneb Kgotsile (Gloria House), a Civil Rights veteran, organizer, and educator whose revolutionary work spans decades. “I feel so proud to be from Detroit which has this legacy of Black struggle and to have grown up in an era where I got to know first hand a lot of these people and got to learn both by their life example, by their political activism, and also by being able to sit with them and talk to them and learn a lot of this history firsthand.” Malik and a handful of others opened the Uhuru Sasa Institute only a stone’s throw away from Ed Vaughn’s bookstore on Dexter Avenue, which was an epicenter of radical Black consciousness and activism in the city. It was in this environment that Yakini met Mama Imani Humphrey, a woman he would work with at the first African-centered school in Detroit for 22 years.

Malik views education as essential to the struggle for Black Liberation and was determined to be apart of building an alternative to the Detroit Public School system which had largely omitted the true nature of the global Black experience. At the same time he developed this notion of an education-centered approach to Black Liberation, the Alexander Crummell Affirmative School was in its formative stage at the Episcopal church in Highland Park in 1975. Led by a progressive minister Kwasi Thornell, the church sponsored programs rooted in Pan-Africanism and Black Nationalism. Yakini worked with Mama Imani Humphrey at the school while he was himself a student at Eastern Michigan and continued this work after he graduated. “We were trying to develop people who would have a sense of dedication to not just themselves, but whose primary concern was to uplift the community that they’re a part of and by extension, the African world.”

 In the 80s a new school arose from the institution named Aisha Shule, Kiswahili for “life school.” Yakini often ran the afterschool program in exchange for tuition for his own children. After a conflict between Yakini and the school administration over constructive criticism he made, his family was forced to leave the school and Malik began homeschooling his children. Over half a dozen other families were against Yakini’s dismissal and they pulled their children from the school as well. Those families asked him to educate their children alongside his own and a new school began. Malik and the other parents started the Nsorma Institute in 1989. For 6 months, the school operated as what Yakini called a “guerrilla school” because they did yet have the funds to get fire marshal certifications through the city. They eventually succeeded in getting the school above ground but resources for the school and paying the teachers a living wage proved difficult. By the early 90s, Detroit began opening African-centered schools within the district and the advent of the charter system allowed formerly private institutions to seek public funding. Yakini decided for the Nsorma Institute to continue, they would have to apply for a charter. However, it wasn’t until 1997 they would be granted a charter through Oakland University. Nsorma Institute was in operation for over twenty years by the time it closed in 2013. However, in the last 14 years the school was open, Yakini and the school began to focus the student’s attention on food security through a gardening program. This opened up a new chapter in Malik’s activism and organizing work.

Parents from the school wanted to bring what the children were learning in school back to the neighborhood and so the Shamba Garden Collective was formed in 2000. In 2005 Malik reconnected with Anan Lololi who introduced him to a larger food security movement. After an invitation to to a conference in Atlanta, Yakini dedicated himself to building a Black community organization whose mission was food sovereignty, a concept guided by the principle that access to food and agency over the land to produce it is a matter of social justice. Malik recognizes that the system of private land ownership perpetuates racial class oppression. “What we see in the United States and many other parts of the world is ownership of land wealth and power concentrated in the hands of wealthy white men. That is embedded deeply in the logic of capitalism.” In February of 2006 he presented a proposal for the new organization to a group of folks his Black Star Community Bookstore and DBCFSN was born. DBCFSN has since played an integral role in empowering communities with the ability to produce their own food and thus creating a space for self-determination. The network researched what others had done across the country and in 2008 successfully pushed city council to pass a resolution regarding food policy in Detroit. Advocating for land justice was central to its mission as in the case of the opposition to Hantz Farms. In 2012 DBCFSN built a coalition of existing organizations along with Feedom Freedom Growers and together they challenged a land grab by private investor John Hantz, a wealthy individual with ambiguous plans for land acquired in a deal with the city. Yakini viewed the deal as, “a dangerous precedent for the city to sell that huge amount of land to an individual basically just because the guy had the money to buy it.” The coalition got city council to hold a public hearing on the sale and organized neighborhood residents to attend. Despite community opposition, the city council ultimately approved the sale. Although it was a setback, the struggle showed that grassroots action could force politicians to act and that in the future, a stronger organizational effort could produce a better result for the people. DBCFSN has taken a multifaceted approach to food security and in 2010 formed the Detroit Peoples Food Co-op, a community controlled institution that practices cooperative economics. “We’re not just interested in having a supermarket that’s owned by a black individual. But we’re interested in strategies that allow us to create collective wealth in our community and to create empowerment and so co-operatives are a way of doing that.” Another program that emerged from the network is D-Town Farm. In 2008 DBCFSN negotiated the use of city owned land in Rouge Park for an urban farming operation that promoted community self-determination. The idea was not only to show residents that they could grow their own food, but to encourage them to see a future that realized collective agency over the community itself.

Malik continues the work of food sovereignty within Detroit and has expanded the work of the DBCFSN. D-Town Farm is training new growers each year. The Detroit Peoples Food Co-op is currently developing a member-owned grocery store that will employ local residents as part of a larger complex dedicated to the community. “We need to find out how to create systems that ensure that everyone’s needs are meet and everyone has the possibility of reaching their full human potential.”

References
  • Campbell, Eric T. “Economic Planning Inspires Food Farm in Rouge Park.” Michigan Citizen, Aug, 2008.
  • https://proxy.lib.wayne.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.proxy.lib.wayne.edu/docview/368158922?accountid=14925.

Malik Yakini, interviewed by Peter Blackmer, July 12, 2019, Voices from the Grassroots Oral History Collection, Detroit Equity Action Lab, Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, Wayne State University Law School.

Malik Yakini Oral History, Part 1 (2019)

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Malik Yakini Oral History, Part 2 (2019)
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